Jewish tradition approaches animals from many perspectives; some are positive and others negative. Let us stay on the positive side and bring a couple of quotations. An example of the positive is found in the Book of Proverbs, “A righteous person takes heed of the life of their beast.” (12:10) Another is found in the Talmud where it says, “A person must not eat before feeding his animal.” (Tractate Berakhot 40a)
Many very important mitzvot (divine commandments) can be classified under the heading of relieving suffering of animals or protection of animals (Tza’ar Ba’alei Hayim). A few of these extensively studied commandments include: Sabbath rest for animals, prohibition of muzzling an ox when working in the field and the ban on slaughter of an animal and its offspring on the same day.
The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society in its Spring 1992 issue (Number 23), had an article written by Rabbi Howard Jachter entitled “Halachic Perspectives on Pets.” Given all the perspectives that he highlights, no mention is given to the Jewish Law and the mourning of pets.
Two of my favorite texts on Jewish mourning are The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm and Death and Mourning: A Halakhic Guide by Rabbi Abner Weiss. I highly recommend these two books. No where do either of these books address the question of mourning practices pertaining to pets.
Since you mentioned in your question the yahrzeit candle, I would like to quote from Rabbi Weiss as to the meaning of the candle. He writes, “A lighted candle is a powerful symbol of the soul’s connection with the body. As the flickering, vulnerable flame is attached to the body, giving it light and realizing its potential. It is for this reason that a candle is kept burning from the time of death.” (p.94)
Rabbi Weiss, when speaking of ‘Yahrzeit Observances’ writes, “A candle should burn in every residence where children observe the yahrzeit of their parents.” (p.166)
It is unmistakable from reading halakhic (Jewish legal) writings that Jewish mourning practices are reserved for humankind. These practices have evolved over the centuries and millennia, and are held in the highest esteem by Jews.
That being said, however, a person’s attachment to a pet, as you mention in your question, a ‘beloved dog,’ can be great and very important.
I am tempted to make mention of inanimate objects in Judaism that we revere and bury in a ceremonious manner, such as sifrei Torah (scrolls), prayer books and tefillin (phylacteries), all containing the name of God. Jewish tradition accords these objects a special place that is not accorded anything else. This is explicit due to reflecting the place of God in Jewish life.
When my daughter and son were young, their pet hamster “Shlumiel” died. Naturally, they were ‘broken hearted’ and we buried the deceased pet. The children wrote notes to the pet that we included as we shoveled in the earth. They were also encouraged to ‘say a few words’ of their love of their hamster.
In no way did I feel that this encroached on sacred Jewish tradition, nor did I feel that they had lost sight of the enormous deference accorded human life (and death) as distinct from the loss of animal life.
While in the process of driving to the Jewish cemetery one day, I noted a pet cemetery where pets were buried in very elaborate funeral ceremonies. I can understand the depth of emotion of losing the ‘family pet,’ however, at the same time there may be a blurring of the place in Judaism of humanity. Everything must be done to preserve our love of human life and not equate human-kind with animal-kind. To do so, may have the undesirable result of losing our Jewish perspective on all life.
I believe that we have established that there is a ‘desire’ or ‘want’ to express your emotions at the loss of your dog. Now, the question is, how do you go about it? You have brought forth two possibilities, ‘yahrzeit’ candle and a memorial service. Some one else looking in Jewish tradition may wish to consider reciting Kaddish (so-called mourner’s prayer), or lead daily worship, donate prayer books or a synagogue plaque in memory of the dog.
It is healthy to desire to memorialize and respectfully remember a beloved companion animal, and it may be attractive to employ elements of the Jewish mourning customs to grieve the loss of a pet.
The mourning practices of Judaism are powerful, effective and wise, and they express utmost respect and recognition that those who die are vessels of a sacred soul for whom we shared a unique familial bond; they also address the unique pain and sorrow that accompanies the mourner over such a loss of life. For these reasons, using the tools of Jewish mourning is inappropriate for the death of an animal.
The idea to memorialize in a specifically Jewish way via a yahrtzeit candle and/or a similar memorial service is to conflate three matters:
the Jewish identity of the one who is grieving;
the Jewish customs associated with mourning the loss of a family member; and
the death of a non-human.
Jewish mourning rituals are reserved for a Jew who loses a close family member (parent, spouse, sibling or child). In the same way it would be inappropriate for non-Jewish mourners to adopt Jewish mourning practices – because it is a misapplication of our sacred religious ritual that is specifically defined to exclusive circumstances – so, too, it is inappropriate to apply Jewish mourning practices to the death of a non-human life.
A core value of Judaism is the recognition of the intrinsic value of each human life because we believe that humans share qualities with Gd that are exclusive to these two beings. While the desired effect may be to elevate the worth of an animal's life by mourning it in a human way, in fact and in practice it denigrates the worth of human life. The death of a human family member and that of a companion animal are meant to be, and are, incomparable. To be clear – Jewish mourning is not about the level of love felt toward the object that is lost but is the recognition of the departure of a soul from our world – a soul that possessed unique, Gd-like qualities to transform the world whether or not those qualities were ever actualized.
To light a yahrtzeit candle on the anniversary of both the death of a parent and a pet is to place their cosmic worth on similar planes – though one who is Jewish may choose to do so the act is counter to Judaism.
Pets are beloved members of our families and the bond an owner feels may be as strong as any other relationship they have. When a pet dies, the mourning the owner feels can be very deep, so the desire for an appropriate memorial is understandable.
The widespread popularity of keeping pets is reasonably modern. Even though animals have been domesticated for centuries they were most often working members of the household rather than pets. Jewish tradition taught that one must look after their animals. The principle of tzaar ba'alei hayim, preventing pain to animals, mandated that one's animals should be fed before oneself. Nonetheless, classical Jewish texts do not know of or address the practice of keeping an animal as a pet.
Since the mid-1990's some Reform and Conservative synagogues have adopted the practice of blessing pets, often on the Shabbat when the story of Noah is read. The impetus seems to be a recognition that all creatures are God's creations and that these particular creatures with whom we share our homes and lives deserve blessing for what they add to our lives. For example, this prayer by Rabbi Robin Nafshi was cited in a blog posting in http://heebnvegan.blogspot.com/2009/12/jews-adopt-blessing-of-animals.html:
“Blessed are You, Holy Source, Maker of all living creatures. On the fifth and sixth days of creation, You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. We ask You to bless these animals; enable them to live fully in praise to Your Name. May we always praise You for all Your beauty in creation. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, for all of your creatures!”
These services highlight the depth of spiritual connection that many people feel. In the same blog posting Rabbi Michael Resnick commented that
he “was surprised at the amount of pastoral care” he did at his blessing of the animals. The event provided a unique opportunity to console a woman who felt guilty after her dog died while she was away and another attendee whose dog was nearing death. “The pets were simply a vehicle to reach the emotional core of some of the people,” he said.
Despite the lack of precedent, many people feel it is appropriate to do something to mark the passing of a beloved pet. A search of the internet turns up a variety of funeral services created over the last decade. Most of those who have commented on these services stress the distinction between pets and people. While a memorial may be appropriate, the specific recitation of Mourner's Kaddish is avoided. An article that includes a funeral service for a pet, first published in the CCAR Journal in 1998, frames the issue this way:
Although it is entirely appropriate and I would suggest important to create a ritual for the loss of a pet, it is not appropriate to incorporate our traditional mourning/memorial liturgy (i.e. Eil male rachamim and Kaddish) for this purpose. Although we love and adore our pets and they are significant members of our families, they are not human. It is important that we remain cognizant of the boundaries that do exist as a part of the natural world--raising up and honoring our creature companions without debasing the responsibilities, benefits and privileges that come with being human.
A Conservative-based website describes a sample pet funeral in this way:
There is nothing wrong with holding a memorial service where favorite photos, toys and memories are shared. Making a donation to an animal shelter in the pet’s memory is a form of tzedakah, righteous giving, and is a fitting way to remember a pet. Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, has created a blessing for a pet memorial service. Notice that the blessing does not include a mention of God’s name. “Barukh atah she’lo chisar b’olamo davar.” Blessed are You in whose world nothing is lacking. It is filled with wonderful animals that bring joy and companionship to human beings.
The death of a beloved pet can be painful, the mourning deeply felt. Especially when children are involved it is an occasion to teach how one copes with loss and sorrow. The services and prayers cited above, and many more on the internet, can serve as a model for one who wishes to find an appropriate and meaningful way to memorialize their pet.
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